During his inaugural speech in January 1961, barely three months after Nigeria attained independence from Britain, President John Kennedy said “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” That quote, particularly the highlighted portion kept running through my mind as I read Max Siollun’s latest opus, “Soldiers of Fortune”.
Soldiers of Fortune (SOF) picks up from where Siollun’s prequel “Oil Politics and Violence (OPV)” leaves off. It is a very revealing account of Nigeria’s junta dominated polity from 1983 when the government of an unpopular President Shehu Shagari was truncated via a coup, to 1993 when General Babangida ignominiously “stepped aside”.
SOF is quite well written and I cannot but repeat my comments in a thread discussing OPV after its release as they similarly apply. I noted then that “Mr. Siollun took great pains to be objective, quite a feat considering the sensitive nature of the Nigerian polity. A man once said “I have never traveled to Venice, but I have been there, many times” Mr. Siollun provides a LOT of researched backing in presenting his “fly on the wall” accounts, that for a brief moment, the reader feels like he/she was there when it all happened. Upon finishing the book, I could not but ask myself what details in the name of discretion Mr. Siollun consciously chose to leave out.”
Siollun’s ability to take the average reader on a guided tour of the corridors of power and reveal once esoteric account of events without much overwhelming the reader is particularly commendable. Indeed when one takes in these events as they are revealed page after page, one cannot but ask “What isn’t Siollun telling us? Surely there has got to be more. ”
When I read OPV, what I loved the most about it was that it challenged, nay changed previous views I once strongly held on Nigerian politics. SOF in no small part does the same. The major takeaway of the book for me was Siollun’s account of the June 12 election annulment debacle. I, like many Nigerians I know once held the view that General Babangida in typical “evil genius Maradona” fashion did a bait and switch on Nigerians by annulling the elections to perpetuate himself in power despite promising a transition to democracy. Siollun very systematically purges me of that point of view by accounting how Babangida faced enormous, even life threatening pressure from some of his high ranking military cabinet not to allow the election results stand. It is to Siollun’s literary credit that SOF which appropriately is heavily focused on Babangida’s tenure, leaves the reader simultaneously critical (or even hateful) of and yet, slightly sympathetic to Babangida. I found myself saying “Stop it Siollun, don’t let me spread the blame around, I want to exclusively hate this man.” That the very senior military officers whom Babangida “charmed and settled” to place him in power, were the same ones who prevailed upon him to annul the 93 elections and left him open to the ubiquitous hate of Nigerians, thus making his exit from power inevitable was eye opening.
The reader will likewise have a more nuanced view of Nigeria’s military and no longer view it as a monolith. Siollun very well educates the uninitiated that even within the despotic military junta were the dichotomic power struggles of “professional” and “politicized” officers. While Nigeria’s history clearly shows that the latter faction prevailed, it is quite educative, if not comforting to know that such a dynamic struggle existed at all!
Reading SOF also successfully challenged my previous opinion that had Abiola been sworn in to power, perhaps the trajectory of Nigeria would have changed. It was a complete revelation to me that Abiola was a financier of two coups which brought the military to power. In so doing, he unwittingly financed his own misfortunes. Even if Abiola was sworn into power, Siollun essentially notes that such was the antipathy of a huge portion of the military command to him, that his Presidency would have been short lived. In the end, both Babangida and Abiola metaphorically ended up in the belly of Kennedy’s proverbial Tiger.
The Nigerian public is not spared as well and are also given their fair share of the blame for Nigeria’s state of affairs. Our gullibility fueled by tribalism and hypocrisy never did us any favours.
I wish I could close this on a happy note of hope, but I just cannot in good conscience do so. When I finished reading SOF, my first thoughts were “Good God, we never had a snowball’s chance in hell.” As we have now made the transition to “democracy”, I cannot but wonder if we are simply repeating the same vicious cycle that Siollun writes about. When General Buhari took over from President Shagari in 1983, he said among other things, “The last general election was anything but free and fair. The only political parties that could complain of election rigging are those parties that lacked the resources to rig. There is ample evidence that rigging and thuggery were relative to the resources available to the parties. This conclusively proved to us that the parties have not developed confidence in the presidential system of government on which the nation invested so much material and human resources.While corruption and indiscipline have been associated with our state of under-development, these two evils in our body politic have attained unprecedented height in the past few years. The corrupt, inept and insensitive leadership in the last four years has been the source of immorality and impropriety in our society. Since what happens in any society is largely a reflection of the leadership of that society, we deplore corruption in all its facets.”
Buhari too was removed in a coup, by the same officers who brought him to power via a coup. Buhari, Babangida, Abiola all entered in the belly of the tiger they tried to ride. As Nigeria trudges along, I am not entirely sure this tiger is fully satiated.